In Bed-Stuy Residents Ask: What's Up At The Armory?

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As the autumn leaves began to transform into a vivid confetti of red, yellow and orange, residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant began to receive multicolored fliers slipped into their mailboxes and slid under their front doors. Although many Brooklyn homeowners are vigilant against printed matter cluttering up their front gates and stoops, Bedford-Stuyvesant remains a place where local news is often spread the old-fashioned way – via an announcement on a homemade flier.

Henry L. Butler, chairman of the neighborhood's Community Board 3, caught wind of the fliers at about the same time residents did. Butler began receiving e-mails and tips from concerned residents in late September that a provocative rumor was spreading fast. As described on the flier, the “news” was alarming: “Mayor Bloomberg has announced intent to close the Bellevue men’s shelter in Manhattan…the overflow of men (850) will be moved to the Sumner Avenue Armory along with the (350) men from the Atlantic Avenue Shelter…a large number of these men are dangerous felons…some are sexual predators, and some have mental conditions…homeless men are being bused into the Sumner Avenue Armory each night…”

For a neighborhood like Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has been slowly chipping away at its reputation as an unsafe place plagued with poverty and crime, the prospect of what some residents call the city “dumping their undesirables” into the community was completely unacceptable.

An effort to stave off just such a regression – and even to preserve a glimmer of hope about opportunities for further community development – has occupied the area's civic-minded residents over the weeks, as the sycamore and maple trees lining the sidewalks went bare.

Something's up on Sumner

Butler contacted Carmine Rivetti, assistant commissioner of government and community relations for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), and set up a meeting with him to learn about any future plans the city agency might have to accommodate the shift out of Bellevue by changing the status of Pamoja House. That's the privately run men’s shelter housed in a small section of the Sumner Avenue Armory, a red brick fortress comprising almost a full city block, bordered by Jefferson and Putnam Avenues to the south and north, and Marcus Garvey (formerly Sumner Avenue) and Lewis Avenues to the west and east. Operated by the nonprofit Black Veterans for Social Justice – a nearly three-decade-old local community-based organization providing housing, counseling and other services – it's been functioning as a 200-bed facility for working homeless men since the mid-1990s.

According to Butler, Rivetti assured him no changes were in the works – news he relayed to local community leaders, including board members of the Bedford Stuyvesant Association (a long-operating community action group comprised of residents and elected board members), who had been instrumental in alerting residents about the rumor. But, Butler said, “People were not satisfied with that response.” He explained that mistrust between residents and city government had developed over the years, going all the way back to the early 1980s when the Koch administration established large transitional homeless shelters in armories. Until that change, the Sumner Avenue armory was used as a private school and a Fire Department training center, but had been open for community use back when it was still under the jurisdiction of the National Guard. In a neighborhood with many families and children – but few public spaces for sports, cultural events and entertainment – losing use of the armory was a huge blow. And many residents who experienced that loss still live in the neighborhood today.

One resident with a long memory is Jerry Blackshear, a board member of the Bedford Stuyvesant Association and acting president of the Jefferson and Lewis Block Association. She has lived on Jefferson Avenue in the Stuyvesant Heights section, a half a block away from the armory, since 1978, and in Bed-Stuy since 1962. Blackshear has kept a close eye on the mammoth building that used to host concerts, dances, track and field competitions, and many other community events. A retiree and longtime neighborhood activist who has served on the board of the Bedford Stuyvesant Association for 27 years, she monitors any new developments in the neighborhood in the same way her organization disseminates fliers – by hitting the streets.

It was on one of her walks around the area, only a few blocks away from the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District, that Blackshear saw something unusual. “Back in the spring, around April, I was over by the armory and noticed trucks lined up, with men unloading a lot of mattresses,” she said recently. She contacted her friend and fellow BSA board member Margaret Cobb, “grabbed a camera,” and staked out the armory. “We were vigilant and suspicious,” Blackshear said. She and Cobb discovered that “white buses were pulling up to the armory late at night … sometimes at 10:30 p.m. … other times as late as midnight … and men were getting off the buses and going into the shelter.”
Looking for answers

Blackshear had been a member of a community advisory board created during the Koch years to keep local residents in the loop about any changes in the operation of the shelter and possible impacts on the neighborhood. But, she said, once the Black Veterans for Justice took over operation of the shelter in the mid-90s, the board was no longer consulted. This lack of transparency led her and Cobb to take a keen interest in the fact that men were being bused into the community. “That is supposed to be a working-men’s shelter, period,” Blackshear said – meaning that the men who were being bused in by the city at night would not include the type of people Blackshear and other residents were worried would be hanging out in the neighborhood – felons, sex offenders or mentally unstable individuals.

Like many civically aware Brooklynites, Blackshear had heard about the city’s plan to transfer the men's homeless intake center from the campus of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan to the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Crown Heights. (See recent City Limits stories from August and May.) She also had personally heard that because of the opposition in Crown Heights to this plan, the city had decided – behind closed doors – that the Bellevue clientele would instead eventually be moved to Pamoja House at the Sumner Avenue Armory. Community Board 3 chairman Butler responded to this by working to broker a meeting between DHS Commissioner Robert V. Hess and community leaders including Blackshear.

Butler arranged for the commissioner to speak with residents at the monthly Community Board 3 meeting on Nov. 3, and in the weeks leading up to the meeting, Hess’ office fielded questions and concerns from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz along with residents. So prior to attending the CB3 meeting, Hess wrote a letter to Markowitz (with copies sent to the community board and local City Councilman Al Vann). “Please be assured that there are no plans to change the current shelter operations at this location,” says the Oct. 23 letter. “The agency has no plans to expand the capacity at this location or to relocate men’s intake to the Sumner Avenue Armory.”

On that first Monday evening in November, residents came armed with questions they asked Hess directly. According to Brad Stratton, a member of the Stuyvesant Heights Parents Association who attended the meeting, the commissioner again stated that there would be no changes to the use of the shelter at Sumner Avenue Armory. But many in the audience still wanted to know why men were being bused into the neighborhood late at night. Hess explained at that meeting, and his office has since reiterated, that when a homeless man has been processed at an intake center and assigned residence at a particular shelter, “sometimes clients leave a shelter for a period of time, and then they return to their assigned location, only to find the facility at capacity.” In this case, shelter officials call around to other shelters in the five boroughs to see which might have extra beds for the evening, and then go ahead and bus the men out to those shelters with unoccupied beds.

Leticia Theodore, another member of the Stuyvesant Heights Parents Association, recalled that after hearing about this practice, someone in the audience asked the commissioner, “So, what happens the next day?” Theodore said Hess replied: “They’re released the next morning and given Metro cards.” But according to Theodore, during a later part of the question and answer period, Hess said that the men were bused back to the city in the morning.

This contradiction – and the general concern residents had that DHS was not fully disclosing information about Pamoja House’s true capacity, nor providing any proof that they were ensuring the men did indeed go back into Manhattan when released the following morning – seemed to fuel whispers rippling around the room that night, and then spread throughout the neighborhood in the following days. Some residents just couldn’t trust that a city official had their best interests at heart. (City Limits' efforts to get input from Pamoja House leaders, meanwhile, proved unsuccessful.)

Other residents, however, felt like the matter was resolved, among them the CB3 chairman. Butler was aware, however, that there was still a concern within the community “that there are more than 200 beds” at Pamoja House, and Blackshear and the Bedford Stuyvesant Association had made it clear to him that they were firm in their stance that Pamoja House “has to remain an employable shelter.”

Not “against homeless people”…

When asked if she felt satisfied by Hess' assurances at the meeting, Blackshear retorted: “No, we’re not satisfied. We want to stop the busing. They’re busing people in every night, and at seven a.m. the next morning, they release them into the community.” She went on to add: “We are not ‘against homeless people’ or the working men; we want to make sure that emergency transition people – homeless men who haven’t been assessed – are not bused to the Sumner Avenue Armory. We want it to remain the way it was intended – for employable men only.”
Blackshear’s group continues to pursue this goal, enlisting the attention and promised efforts of a number of elected officials, all of whom spoke to residents at another town-hall style meeting on Nov. 13. Several residents stood up to ask borough president Markowitz, councilman Vann, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson and state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery how the DHS is planning on following through with its promise to address the concerns of the neighborhood. In a note of assurance, Robinson stated that she had received information that only 174 of the 200 beds at Pamoja House were full as of that week, and that the DHS “has not submitted any plan or paperwork to the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance in Albany” regarding use of the Sumner Avenue Armory, which she said DHS must do for any proposed “change of use or change of services” in any of its shelters.

At the meeting, Markowitz said his office had been urging DHS to provide more oversight, as well as more information to residents. He said Hess had agreed to put in motion a plan to provide busing back into Manhattan for any men who are not permanent residents of Pamoja House, and that it would begin “in a week to 10 days.”

Markowitz also announced that DHS and Pamoja House had agreed to reinstate the previous relationship with a community advisory board (see a second letter from Hess, dated Nov. 10). Butler from CB3 said his office is already starting to “set up a task force to see what steps to take to form the board.” The borough president also told residents that Hess had agreed to schedule a tour of the facility with Markowitz and 10 representatives from the community, including Blackshear. “You have every right to make sure the quality of life in this neighborhood is not diminished,” he said.

This news struck some residents as encouraging and positive – a sign that for once, the city of New York might just be ready to listen to the concerns of a neighborhood that has been “dumped on” over the past 30 years. But many other residents, like Brad Stratton, felt like “it seemed too convenient that everything we had been hearing was suddenly not true or solved.”

…But pining for the armory

This kind of skepticism seems to run through the minds and hearts of Bedford-Stuyvesant residents, whether they've lived in the community for nearly five years, like Stratton, or 46 years, like Blackshear. She in particular seems like a tough nut to crack until she goes into detail about all she’s been keeping track of in relation to the shelter. “Recently, someone I know was assaulted, in the middle of the day, for no reason. The man now has two cracked ribs and two knocked-out teeth…and the guy who attacked him did so for no apparent reason. The victim thinks the guy who did it is someone who was staying overnight at the shelter. And merchants have complained about [homeless men] hanging out at the corner of Throop and Fulton, begging.”

She also talks about her efforts, ever since 1981, to get the city to release the unused parts of the Sumner Avenue Armory back to the community. “There was originally a bowling alley in there, a swimming pool, rifle range, horse stable, three catering halls, a gymnasium and a drill field the size of three football fields, all sitting there, not being used. I have the blueprints.”

Beyond making sure that the neighborhood surrounding her home doesn’t again fall victim to neglect or misuse, Blackshear and other longtime residents would like to see these hidden amenities opened up again. “Our kids around here have nowhere to go, nothing to do,” she stated as a matter of fact. “We could really benefit from having an athletic facility and an arts, culture and recreation center so that the kids and young adults can see that there’s more to life than hanging out on the street. We don’t want their role models to be guys hanging out on the streets, and we worry that that’s what’s going to happen if the city keeps busing non-working homeless men into the neighborhood, and ignoring our requests to have community use of the armory.”

– Rosie McCobb

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